Enjoying the outdoors is more popular than ever, according to visitation numbers at California parks. Joshua Tree National Park hit a record high of roughly three million visitors in 2018, doubling its numbers since 2013. More than four million people have vacationed in Yosemite National Park every year since 2015. Muir Woods instituted a reservation system to manage its one million redwood-loving visitors, and managers at Carmel’s Point Lobos State Natural Reserve will soon follow suit.
All this nature time is great for visitors’ physical and mental well-being, but the recent uptick in numbers has led to an oft-repeated storyline: More people equals more pressure on the fragile environment.
Wilderness expert John Kleinfelter, who operates Yosemite Guide Service, says, “Our overwhelming love of the outdoors sometimes clashes with our need to protect it.”
Fortunately, it’s incredibly easy to be a responsible outdoor recreationist. The national organization Leave No Trace distills it into seven core principles based on respect for nature and other people. These include traveling only on trails or other durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly, being considerate of other visitors, and leaving nature exactly as you found it.
Nature fans across the state are taking action. In Big Sur, residents launched a campaign urging visitors to take the Big Sur Pledge. It’s a promise to enjoy the region’s beauty without harming it, with guidelines for respecting property, protecting natural resources, camping only where permitted, and driving safely on coastal roads.
The iconic Bixby Bridge at Big Sur’s northern gateway is what land managers call a “hot spot,” a photogenic attraction that has seen an exponential surge in smartphone-carrying visitors. The bridge’s graceful arch, which spans a dramatic canyon opening to the Pacific’s roiling waves, has been in place since 1931. But only recently has it gone viral.
“Instagram and social media have highlighted spots that were much less visited in the past, inspiring thousands of people to get outdoors,” Kleinfelter says. “That’s a good thing, but many newcomers don’t understand outdoor ethics.”
Travel photographer Megan Hayes says that many visitors don’t realize their impact on the environment. “When people rush to get a photo, they can inadvertently crush fragile plants, cause erosion, or damage the natural scenery they came to enjoy.”
Hayes says that Instagram influencers can use their power for good. “Don’t post images that glorify bad behavior, like camping too close to a lake or stepping on plants. Instead, show people enjoying nature respectfully.”
Kleinfelter recommends that nature lovers set a good example and speak up when necessary. “There aren’t enough rangers around to educate people and enforce rules. If you see someone picking wildflowers or disturbing wildlife, say something in a non-confrontational way. Remind them that they want to protect these beautiful places so the next person can appreciate them.”
Visitors can also take small actions that have a big impact, like picking up litter. “Litter has no owner,” Kleinfelter says. “These parks and public lands belong to all of us, and it’s up to us to take care of them.”